Table of Contents
Things to do in Kigali – Understand
Rwanda has become infamous for the dramatic genocide that afflicted the country in the mid 1990s. It’s been said that two thirds of the population were displaced, killed or wounded. There was nobody left unaffected – every family has been victim to this terrible crime to humanity.
After the event which unfolded in just a few days, the country was transformed to a wasteland. However, Rwanda recovered quickly and the traumatic experience has formed a rare sense of unity in a country committed to the future. Think of a Singapore in Africa – the common experience allowed the government to push through reforms and infrastructure programs. Kigali City has developed into a business hub with lot of ‘islands of excellence’ that are certainly world-standard.
The roads are good, police are honest and actually provide security and the internet is fast. This comes at a price since the country feels very authoritarian and focused on the sitting president, but that was/is also the case in Singapore. Sometimes freedom trails the economic development.
Kigali is a relaxed city where time seems to run slower (try ordering a coffee in under 20 minutes!) which is built on lots of green hills. While there isn’t ‘one view’, there is almost always a view on to the next hill. Very beautiful but not easy to capture as I realized.
Kigali is also very suburban and compound-driven. High fences and highly-secured single entrances make it hard to simply explore the city.
Things to do in Kigali – Safety
The better districts of Kigali like Kiyovu are mostly super-safe. I had no trouble walking around alone at night or in the daytime. All the other places I visited in Kigali seemed perfectly safe during the day. The road conditions can change quickly and there is precious little street lighting on smaller streets, so make sure you have a driver who knows what he is doing. In general, crime isn’t an issue in Kigali (for now).
Things to do in Kigali – Traffic
The air in Rwanda is fresh and that’s also true for most of Kigali. The roads are as good as you’d expect in, say, Thailand. Traffic is moving at all times. You do not have to plan around traffic in Kigali – it will work for you. Generally you will have a hired driver, cab (easy to find) or moto taxi (too scary for me) to get around in. It’s all reasonably cheap and works well.
Things to do in Kigali – Things to see
As sad as the event was, it forms a central identity for Rwandans and is something we all are curious about. The excellent memorial and museum details the history of events that led to the traumatic days in 1994. The event was a long time coming unfortunately (but hard to predict when) and had been a lingering problem for 40 years. Take an hour and explore the grounds here as well. There is no admission and it’s a 5-minute taxi drive from downtown.
The acting president before the genocide was Juvenal Habyarimana. He lived the life of many African autocrats in a big villa with Western amenities, while the population hung on to subsistence. The president’s plane was shot down before the genocide event and proved to be the spark to start it. Conveniently the crash happened when approaching Kigali Airport and the original crash site is less than 100 yards from the presidential house. What a coincidence!!!
The museum is in Kanombe and while not everyone knows it, there are plenty of signs once you get to the area. The admission is RWF 6,000 ($8) and usually includes a guided tour. The house is well-preserved and features a lot of original items. You will be surprised to hear that the president entertained a python and a swimming pool for the lovely pet. It’s also surprising that Pope John Paul II came to the house to inaugurate the private chapel.
The guides do not speak much English so it might be a good idea to bring a phone and Google a bit.
This mini-mall is the place to be when downtown. It’s on a steep hill and the Bourbon Coffee patio provides great views towards the mountains.
It features money changers/ ATMs, a 24/7 supermarket and lots of other helpful businesses.
Just a few blocks off is another mini-mall that features a cinema and a decent food court. Another Bourbon Coffee shop (with better WiFi) helps the mall to attract shoppers (though it seems people rather hold on to their money in Kigali).
Another mall that features a German butcher and more Bourbon Coffee. However, the view from the upstairs outdoors patio offers sweeping views.
This was one of the things recommended by Living in Kigali (an excellent blog) but something I did not do in the end. The neighborhood provides a more lively alternative.
We all remember Hotel Rwanda – the movie that drove home the genocide experience. While the movie was filmed in South Africa, the true story played out at Des Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in the city center. It’s not a great hotel and it’s very expensive but you should go by (maybe after watching the movie again) and have an (overpriced) drink at the bar.
Things to do in Kigali – Where to eat
Kigali has a good number of expats attracted there by NGO jobs and just the general safe business climate of the city. Lots of restaurants have sprung up that serve this clientele. Keep in mind that service is usually VERY slow in Kigali. A one-hour wait for food is not considered bad service.
Hands down the best place to eat in Kigali. Fantastic setting, fair prices and Indian food that would compete well anywhere on the planet. The service is super-friendly too, but did I mention things take longer in Kigali… A lunch will take 60-90 minutes for one course – lol.
The company also runs a food court at Kigali City Tower – the food is way worse though, so go get the original.
Mission-style burritos in Kigali – are you kidding me? Meze Fresh is like an upscale Chipotle. You can even get a burrito bowl with salad. Holy smokes. Portions are huge and it’s cheap. It’s close to the US Embassy, so you know who hangs out here to eat.
Since my first full-on encounter with Ethiopian food last year (see review of Yeshi Buna and Kategna), I keep ordering it back home at least once a week – that’s how much I started to like the sour bread. Lalibela is run by an Ethiopian family and provides huge dishes for fair amounts. Keep in mind that Ethiopian curries (like Indian) can be a bit stale and hard on your digestion (you literally have to pay for the awesome taste you are enjoying).
This place is a winner in terms of atmosphere and it’s set atop a hill with a big outdoor patio (bring that mosquito repellent!) overlooking the Kigali hills. It’s very nice, but the food is just OK. Apparently nobody has told the owners that there are spices in Italian food…
This is more a lounge than a proper restaurant, but serves brochettes (a Rwandan staple of grilled meat or fish) and a mix of African and Italian dishes. The food is expensive and just OK. The view and atmosphere are more of a winner.
Papyrus and Sundowner are where the local who’s who come together on a Friday evening. I did not go to either, but they might be just the places to see how the locals do.
Things to do in Kigali – Where to stay
Accommodation is a bit of an issue in town. It’s either very expensive or too cheap and dirty. I experimented with different options (including Airbnb) and wasn’t super happy with either.
Radisson is planning to open a property in 2016 and this should be a good place to redeem points. Marriott is planning to open a property in town in 2016 as well.
My recommendation is Gloria Hotel downtown – a small boutique hotel in a superb location. Rooms are small but very modern. The WiFi is fast and the hotel bar is a wonderful place for a drink overlooking the downtown hustle and bustle. Room rates don’t fluctuate much and are $60-$90 depending on size. The hotel does not show up on most booking engines so book via their website or by email.
Things to do in Kigali – Excursions
There are a number of resorts on the eastern shores.
Virunga National Park is home to wild gorillas and active volcanoes. It forms the border between DRC and Rwanda. It’s safe to visit from the Rwandan side, but dangerous from the Congolese side (Goma).
There are many travel agencies across Kigali that will offer trips. Be prepared for long drives and high price tags though. The Virunga Lodge is a great (but expensive) place to stay.